SXSW 2013: The Hits Keep On Comin’

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Prolific wine critic Robert Parker is to the fruit of the vine what Frank Rich used to be to Broadway shows. For a wine lover this can be a curse; a 90+ rating from Parker can boost popularity so much that the average oenophile no longer can afford or find their favorite wines. Fortunately for Broadway lovers, a show will stay around as long as people are buying tickets. While recorded music can easily be replicated and distributed en masse, the “The Parker Effect” holds true for the festival-goer. A hipster-hyped act with a few good reviews invariably attracts outsized amounts of attention from the hipster-gentsia, making it much more difficult to see their festival performances. One of the great things about SXSW, though, is that bands usually play multiple sets throughout the 5 days, offering up multiple opportunities to see the much buzzed-about acts. SXSW features over 1,300 bands, and there are more than enough good artists playing more than enough shows to enable attendees to experience some really great ones along the way.

Here are some of the best over the last few days…

I have two simple statements to make that reprise what we’ve been saying at Weeping Elvis for a few years:  1) The Joy Formidable kicks power rock trio ass! Not since Rush has such a massive power trio sound been made (sorry I don’t count ZZ Top)  2) Lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan is one of the best guitar playin’, most energetic, baddest women in rock. That is all!

Toro y Moi, a.k.a. Chaz Bundick, quietly crept onto the scene a couple of years ago making demos and EPs in his parents’ basement. At the time, I’m sure no one predicted that a basement in South Carolina would birth a new style/genre/sub-genre (however the kids are categorizing the continually splintering diversions of musical form and style these days). If you are into that sort of micro-definition of musical form, you may call this varietal “Chill Wave,” and if Toro y Moi is not Chill Wave’s daddy then he is certainly its most prolific “uncle.” Chill Wave can perhaps be defined by its smooth yet funky grooves and heavy use of effects processing, sampling, looping, ethereal and reverb-laden vocals, and ambient dream-like atmospherics. Toro y Moi kicks in a little bit of old school falsetto and soulful singing. While the basic grooves and chordal structure are fairly straightforward, at times his music gains complexity and builds towards a climactic cacophony before releasing the listener back into a chill, dreamy groove.

But I’ll stop beating around the bush: what Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross (and unfortunately for some, Kenny G) gave yuppies and baby boomers in the 70s and 80s in the way of coitus accompaniment, we now get from Toro y Moi. This is lounge music for models. It’s sex music for hipsters. And on a smaller scale it is similar to what Miles Davis did for jazz in his cool jazz/blue jazz period. Multiple jazz styles that can be traced to a particular Miles Davis album (Kind of Blue, Birth of the Cool, Bitches Brew) and if we pay attention we can now watch the solidification of yet another style bearing his influence. But you don’t have to be old enough or seasoned enough to understand its predecessors to dig Toro y Moi. The music doesn’t care about your age — just dig it!

Time and time again in the punk rock world we’ve seen a good band become popular, achieve a mass audience and immediately lose their edge (See: Rise Against, Green Day — both bands that I love). It’s not that they’ve stopped making good music, but that there has been a definitive shift away from true punk aesthetic (think The Sex Pistols, who never had a chance to go slick). Fucked Up, Against Me! and The Black Lips have all stayed reasonably true to this  edgy aesthetic while achieving a certain level of success, and let’s hope they continue to do so. But what I saw at the Beach Party set was a great punk band in its rawest, edgiest, infancy. Their killer tunes feature great punk beats, interesting and solid chord progressions and an abundance of tempo changes. Their onstage attitude was also killer, as their three front dudes had a perfect lack of choreography, continually banging into each other as their musicality stayed strong, substance trumping the affectations of style. Quite simply, these guys are a really good punk band full of the primal energy that has been sterilized from more stylized “punk”…let’s hope they stay on this path rather than traveling down the corporate roads that will surely beckon.

Super groups exist in many genres of popular music so why not in alternative rock? It’s not that we haven’t had them in alt rock before, but something about this one feels special. Britt Daniel of Spoon (one of the most important alternative bands of the 90s/early 00s)  and Handsome Furs/Wolf Parade front man Dan Boeckner along with New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown have given us a sort of alt rock Asia now going by the moniker of Divine Fits. Throw in a producer of the Yeah YeahYeahs and Nick Cave (Grinderman/The Bad Seeds) and on paper it looks like a great thing— and it is! A Thing Called Divine Fits is a terrific inaugural effort and whether live or recorded, it lives up to its significant potential. Their live show has the raw feel and energy of a younger group combined with the polished professionalism that comes when a band has significant experience gigging. The combination makes for a terrific show with kick-ass punching music and vocals that alternate between two of alt rock’s greatest singers. Throw in a bit of post-punk electronics (via a touring keyboard player) and the result was both musically tight and emotionally energetic. Get the album…see the show.

Towards the end of 2012, like a race horse galloping from the back of the pack into contention, DIIV burst onto the indie scene down the homestretch and made a lot of “Best Of” lists  (#9 on the Weeping Elvis Top 25 Albums of 2012). I can tell you — as can the many others who caught them at SXSW — that they live up to the hype.  Ambient, beautiful, overlapping and well orchestrated guitar lines waft in an out of the groovy, driving, and mostly instrumental songs. On first listen it sounds as if there are a lot of synth textures running as well but all I saw — I watched their setup — were amps and guitars and so I feel certain these guys are creating their soundscape on the 6 strings alone (plus enough reverb units to make Phil Spector salivate). Vocals are not unimportant, but they seem to be more of a textural or ethereal layer rather than a format for storytelling. (There certainly is a place for that in our musical world: think a slightly more rocking and yet spaced out Foals). DIIV is in the vein of Smith Westerns and Tame Impala, but also pays homage to the dischordance and instrumentation of Sonic Youth. If it is possible to be both simultaneously laid back and energetic…that’s what their final product resembles. I have not heard a live rock show with this kind of beautifully orchestrated and arranged guitar work since the last time I saw Built To Spill. The goal of an Olympic diver may be to make as little splash as possible, but DIIV’s big splash at these SXSW shows still earned them scores in the 8 – 10 range. (With the exception of the Romanian judge, naturally).

The first thing you notice about FRANK TURNER is his wonderfully root-sy, American take on folky alt rock/alt country. This is truly an American sound that can only be found in those artists who…wait…what?…he’s British? Well, of course he is— this iteration of the British Invasion continues. Wherever his roots were originally planted, his punk-ish take on driving, American roots rock is really something…the good kind of something. He is quickly becoming a household name in his native England where he played to a world stage of 25 million in the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics. He went on to sell out Wembley Arena and is now selling out (somewhat smaller) houses here in the States. He is, in two words: refreshingly terrific. It’s a really fun show – that is, at least at this show, until things took a turn for the interestingly awkward.

He began with a very bouncy, 1-4-5 country-flavored sing-along type song and all was good until we got to the chorus. Let me digress a second to say that you might do well to read a recent article in The Huffington Post entitled “Don’t Be Offended, Seriously Don’t“. OK, now that you’ve read that: WARNING to those who are easily  offended (and not in a Seth McFarlane/The Oscars way). Back in our bouncy, peppy country song to which Mr. Turner got everyone to sing along, the crowd suddenly found them selves singing the words…”There is no God.” Everyone seemed to be enjoying singing along until they realized what was coming out of their mouths and a bit of awkwardness permeated the crowd. The juxtaposition of these words against the happy, sing-a-long music was arresting at the very least. I am not sure how much his tongue was planted in his cheek, but even while playing to an audience of hipsters, he was reminded that he was STILL in Texas as spot jeers were heard from the crowd. Then he hit us, during his banter, that his next song would be about how “Love isn’t real…it’s only propaganda.” A definite turn down emo lane. I have no idea about his politics — and don’t care — but Turner appears to be emotionally anarchist. It’s truly killer music, and the listener can do with his ideas and lyrics what they will. A music manager described Turner to me as…”what Dashboard Confessional could have been had they not taken a left on sensitivity street.” I can tell you that the music and show are very good, if not great, but let’s say this: I don’t see him (or Billy Bragg) being booked to play the next Romney family reunion. Of course, Elton John did play Rush Limbaugh’s wedding reception, so who knows!

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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.